Iraq, Sanctions and Security: A Critique

By Bahdi, Reem | Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Iraq, Sanctions and Security: A Critique


Bahdi, Reem, Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy


"Legal interpretation takes place in the field of pain and death." (1)

Women's pain and death blurs the distinction between war and peace. Women are disproportionately starved, attacked physically, emotionally and psychologically, and killed during both war and peace. This paper focuses on the sanctions imposed against Iraq by the United Nations Security Council ("Security Council") in response to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the on-going purported threat posed to international peace and security by the Iraqi regime. (2) Intended as a humane alternative to war, the sanctions have nonetheless lead to such high levels of death and suffering, particularly among women and children, that commentators have labeled them "genocide," (3) a "medieval military siege," (4) and "a humanitarian disaster comparable to the worst catastrophes of the past decades." (5) Not surprisingly, critics of the Security Council have turned a plethora of human rights and humanitarian instruments against the sanctions regime.

However, both the Security Council and its critics employ a fragmented definition of "security" that focuses on political leaders and military choices and assumes that security and human rights must be traded off against each other. Consequently, neither side of the debate concerning the sanctions regime fully explores whether "security" can be achieved through, as opposed to limited by, an emphasis on human rights. This fragmented definition of security has prevented the Security Council from duly regarding the human rights implications of its policies, while also preventing the Security Council's critics from properly reconciling the quest for human rights with Iraq's capacity to produce and deploy weapons of mass destruction. In response, this paper suggests the need for a more holistic understanding of "security" that includes respect for human rights as both a component of and a means toward greater security, including military security.

I. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: THE INVASION OF KUWAIT AND THE SANCTIONS REGIME

The story of Iraq's crime and punishment is well known in its broad outline. On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. That same day, the Security Council passed Resolution 660, calling for Iraq's immediate withdrawal from Kuwait. On August 6, 1990, the Security Council passed Resolution 661, an order for comprehensive trade, financial and military embargo of Iraq with the exception of certain limited humanitarian provisions. It also created the "661 Committee" or the "Sanctions Committee" to oversee the resolution. (6) A coalition of twenty-six countries under American command went to war against Iraq in January 1991; this would prove to be the first of a series of military raids on Iraqi soil. Throughout the fighting, tons of bombs, including a reported 315 tons of depleted uranium, (7) were dropped on Iraq; electrical stations and water purification stations were bombed as military targets, and thousands of civilians were killed. (8) A United Nations investigation sent to Iraq shortly after the bombing called the situation, "`near apocalyptic' and `concluded that life had been reduced to a `pre-industrial stage.'" (9) According to some accounts, as many as 1,600 women and children died on February 13, 1991 alone when they were burned alive during the bombing of the Amariyah Shelter. (10)

After six weeks of bombing, Iraq participated in a cease-fire agreement. Security Council Resolution 687 created the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) to oversee the destruction of Iraq's biological and chemical weapons and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor Iraq's nuclear capability. (11) In 1995, Resolution 986 modified the embargo with the Oil-for-Food program that permitted Iraq to sell a controlled quantity of oil so that proceeds from sales could be used, in prescribed proportions, to fund the purchase of humanitarian goods, pay the salaries of United Nations officials charged with distributing humanitarian supplies or monitoring Iraq's disarmament, and pay reparations to Kuwait. …

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